"You can take photographs in the cave but I have to warn you that it looks sparse. A lot of the wine is gone."
A visitor to Bistro à Champlain was given pause at this statement from Monique Nadeau on Sunday, as she received and ministered to customers for the last time. Nadeau's husband, the bistro's bon vivant patron and inveterate collector, Champlain Charest, had indeed divested himself of a considerable portion of his world-class wine cellar over the last decade. Once 38,000 bottles strong, the stockpile was reduced by 13,000 after a blockbuster transaction with the Société des alcools du Québec. Suddenly, anyone with sufficient means could own a bottle of Charest's Château d’Yquem 1975, Harlan Estate 1999 or Petrus 2000.
And yet, the cave below Bistro à Champlain did not look meagre on Sunday. To Nadeau's point, it may well have been by comparison. A cursory scan of the space, however, still disclosed copious Grand Crus and Biblically-named jumbo bottles like Methuselahs and Salmanazars. Enough to put most wine-centric Montreal restaurants to shame.
Over the next month most of the remains of the wine cellar will be packed up and carted off a short distance to the Estérel resort, where they will crown a newly-minted Champlain Charest wine cellar. Charest has promised well-wishers who have yet to come to terms with his decision to close Bistro à Champlain and take retirement that they can still enjoy a glass with him from time to time. Just not in the old general store that Charest bought with painter Jean-Paul Riopelle in 1974.
Some longtime employees have yet to come to terms with Bistro à Champlain's shutter as well. When asked to describe her emotions on Sunday, server Danielle Gareau broke down and excused herself to regain her composure.
I don't know what Champlain will do when he comes to the restaurant in a few days and nobody is here.
"It's very hard. We're a family, the restaurants and the customers. My two sons worked here. We celebrated birthdays, baptisms. I don't know what Champlain will do when he comes to the restaurant in a few days and nobody is here. It worries me."
Gareau explained that she effectively broke the news of the restaurant's closure on Facebook, to the disapproval of her boss.
"He didn't want the attention. I got upset at him and said 'People want to pay their respects. And you have to let them!' And that's what has happened over the last month. It's been very tiring for them but I think it's important that we celebrate the end of Bistro à Champlain this way. And that Champlain and Monique see what effect this place has had on so many."
'People want to pay their respects. And you have to let them!'
On the occasion of the restaurant's last service on Sunday night, it was clear that Gareau's good intentions had paid off. The likes of Martin Picard, who sat next to artist Marc Séguin and Au Pied de Cochon partner Marc Beaudin at the bar, and Daniel Vézina, embraced, and sipped wine with Charest and Nadeau. The couple mingled easily and reminisced with guests, all family and friends at first blush, but minded their duties. Nadeau directed floor staff, inspected plates and topped up glasses. Charest briefly absconded to the restaurant's vaulted, contemporary art-laden banquet room to open and carefully taste several bottles of wine.
Meanwhile, the kitchen's pass was a flurry of activity. Servers dashed by a short, narrow hallway, decorated with honours from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and the governments of Québec and France, with plates of composed salads, cheeses and tartares. In the restaurant's two main dining halls there was audible laughter. And a few tears.